A Smaller Mediterranean?
Satellite TV Channels and the Arab Community in Italy
By Paola Caridi and Emanuele Giordana
From land of emigrants to new Eldorado
There won't be streets
lit up for the festivity. There won't be lanterns or local cakes or the traffic
that precedes most iftars (meals taken at sunset to break the fast). But in Mazara
del Vallo, the small Sicilian town that is now the largest Arab center in Italy,
Ramadan will have the same rituals as in Rabat. Not just the fasting and the prayer,
but also, thanks to the widespread availability of satellite TV channels in Arabic,
the viewing habits. Moroccans, Tunisians, and Egyptians-the three most substantial
Arabic-speaking groups in Italy-will watch the same musalsalat (soap operas),
thus coming closer to a national reality abandoned for many months of the year
in pursuit of a better life and to remit money to their families on the other
side of the Mediterranean.
In brief, satellite TV
performs more and more, even in Italy, the role of a bridge to the country of
origin-a phenomenon already studied in other European countries where the migratory
situations are not only more numerous but also more structured, like the Turkish
in Germany, the Moroccans in France or the Indo-Pakistanis in Great Britain.
Italy however, unlike
the other European Union countries, is a relatively new entrant to the world of
immigration: a rich land, that has been offering work and hope to the so called
"non-Europeans" for only a few decades, it was itself for more than a century
a port of departure for emigrants to the Americas, Australia, Belgium, and Germany.
In fact, it is only in the last thirty years that Italian coasts have become attractive
for immigrants from all over the world, from the Far East to mid-eastern Europe,
passing through the southern shores of the Mediterranean-a turning point in our
times that has taken Italy onto the other side of the virtual barricade that separates
countries of emigration from host countries.
This change explains the
reason Italy (government, NGOs, and Civil Society) has only recently started to
ponder not so much the problem of the "melting pot," which to date does not exist,
but the problem of the immigrant and his possible integration inside the native
social structure. Clearly, this is a "coin with two sides": on one side, there
is the offer of integration by the hosting country; on the other, the push by
And the two sides of the
coin are both parts of that integration strategy which, rightly, includes what
we generically call communication: at school, culturally, in every day life, and
in the mass media such as radio or television.
This introduction is essential
to understand the reality of immigration in Italy, a country where no so-called
transnational language, such as French or English, is spoken, but only Italian,
which is widespread only among the native population and still spoken elsewhere
only within emigrant communities; a useless language, therefore, outside the boundaries
of the peninsula. Emigrants from Arab countries form a substantial portion but
not the majority of migrants to the country, and the majority of these Arab immigrants
are from North Africa, which provides 18 % of migrants to Italy, with Morocco
contributing 158,000, followed by Tunisia and Egypt, each of which contribute
a few tens of thousands. These figures do not include illegal immigrants, even
though unlawful entry is an ever-present and increasing reality, with continual
disembarkations on the southern shores.
North African immigrants
are for the most part men with basic education who come to Italy without any knowledge
of the language searching for low-level employment where no technical specialization
is required. With time they acquire a knowledge of the language, though often
the spoken language only, through personal and work contacts, improved, in the
best of cases, by the attendance of basic-level language courses organized by
the local authorities or immigrants' welfare associations. Arabic speakers coming
to Italy to study or in search of a job requiring advanced qualifications are
Few Arabic immigrants
establish families in Italy, by marrying in the country or by claiming what is
called in bureaucratic terms "family re-unification," meaning permission for the
family left behind in the country of origin to move to Italy. It follows that
the Arab audience in Italy does not have a "normal" social structure. North African
immigration is distinguished by a strong male presence.
Identity Travels via
The Italians are not the
French. Even though there have always been cultural contacts between North Africans
and Italians, few Moroccans or Egyptians have the language proficiency to read
an Italian newspaper. The exception may be Metro, the first free press publication
in Italy, which is given out in the subway stations of Rome and Milan and addressed
to a public of which the immigrant represents a respectable percentage. A newspaper
written in simple language, with brief news reports and in large part tied to
the local situation, it may be read easily even by those with only a basic knowledge
The television is again
a problem, especially because TV gives little space not only to the situation
of immigrants but also to multiculturalism in general. The only relevant exception
is RAIMED, the RAI (Italian state) channel whose programs are dedicated to Arab
issues. The target of the channel is, in fact, to build on the one hand a "two-way
bridge,"-an information channel on Mediterranean cultural, economical, environmental
or social issues, and the connection our country has with this reality-and, on
the other, to give "voice" to the southern Mediterranean communities and institutions
present in our country.
This has a precise meaning
from the point of view of the RAIMED schedule. There are three hours of daily
evening programming from 9 p.m. to midnight (re-run the following morning from
6 to 9 a.m.), of which the first hour is in Italian and the following two in Arabic.
A first hour dedicated to reportage and magazines on Mediterranean themes, is
followed by another 60 minutes to bring knowledge of Italian culture to the Arab
audience, subdivided into fiction programs for teenagers, music, art, cinema,
and cookery, according to a precise weekly schedule. At 10.30 p.m., the TV news
is broadcast by the third RAI channel in the 7 p.m. evening edition with Arabic
soundtrack. RAIMED is unique from the national news perspective, with Arabic-speaking
journalists, usually with several years of residence in the country, on the editorial
side. Another experiment started by the Italian public service produces programs
such as the former "Mondo a colori," which dealt with immigration issues and multiculturalism
and was broadcast by the second RAI channel. Donatella Della Ratta, author of
Media Oriente: Modelli, strategie, tecnologie nelle nuove televisioni arabe (Formello,
Ed. Seam, 2000), worked on the program for three years. "Mondo a colori" examined
experiments such as the 2-minute news in Chinese which has been broadcast every
Sunday evening since 1996 by a private television station out of Prato, Tuscany,
where there is a major Chinese presence.
"The only significant
experiment with Arabic," says Della Ratta, "was made by Euroma Mondo, the news
broadcast out of Rete Oro, a TV station near Rome, where one could see a succession
of multicultural newsreaders from the immigrant communities most represented in
Italy. Based on Euronews (the European Union news station based in Lyons, France),
Euroma Mondo was broadcast in Arabic, as well as Spanish, English, French, Polish,
Greek, and even Japanese. The idea was to give a mix of local news (mainly of
the surrounding Lazio region but also of Italy in general), plus news on major
events happening in the newsreader's country of origin. This experiment pre-dated
the satellite boom in Italy, a boom that was restrained in comparison to most
other European countries, and especially in comparison with those of the Arab
World or European countries such as Former Yugoslavia and Albania. Also pre-dating
the large-scale spread of satellite antennae was the Arabic news that, in 1993,
in Piedmont, was broadcast by another private television station, GPR TV. This
was made by editing news clips transmitted by the television stations of Tunisia,
Morocco, and Egypt, the three countries with the largest Arab communities in Italy.
"This type of news broadcast,"
explains Della Ratta, "is useless now, since the use of satellite antennas is
spreading and immigrants can view the news from Arab TV stations without the need
for re-broadcasting by the television network. With the spread on a large scale
of satellite antennas and the easy access, in comparison to the access to the
channels of one's country of origin, it doesn't make sense to have the news in
Arabic. I believe that, with the ease an Arab immigrant has in accessing Al Jazeera
versus Egyptian or Moroccan TV, the news in Arabic would make sense only if broadcasting
local events, relevant to the town or region where the immigrant lives. From this
point of view, local information, via the multitude of radio-television stations
existing in Italy, could re-qualify, featuring as "ethnic information," for the
immigrant communities, giving them that "local" element that a Moroccan or Egyptian
national news broadcast is, and always will be, unable to provide."
The Al Jazeera Icon
It is hard to imagine
that Italians would recognize the Al Jazeera logo. However this has happened,
as witnessed by the fact that the head of the Al Jazeera's Cairo bureau, Hussein
Abdel Ghani, was in Sharm el Sheik, a resort popular with Italian tourists, when
a group of "normal" middle class tourists started chatting among themselves and
pointing in recognition to the Al Jazeera logo. This was after 11 September 2001:
"9-11" placed Al Jazeera firmly in the minds of European audiences. Even in Italy,
Al Jazeera has ended up being a sort of information icon of the new century and,
in a way, has drawn Italians closer to the many Arabs that have chosen to live
there. The Al Jazeera phenomenon - "the palimpsest that frightens the emirs,"
to quote an article in a Italian daily newspaper by Tariq Ali-has become object
of discussion, statements, and, of course, photo reportage, increasing the "aura"
of the "CNN of the Arab World." Paradoxically, some observers point out, the same
Italian media have advertised the existence of the Qatari network to the Arabs
residing in Italy.
How much Al Jazeera is
used by the Arab audience in Italy is hard to determine. And opinions on the matter
are not unanimous.
According to Farid Adli,
director of the financial news agency Anbamed, a phenomenon such as Al Jazeera
does not greatly change the range of television options available to the Arab
community living in Italy. Among those who own a satellite antenna, the preference,
according to Adli, "always goes to the national channel, for a very simple reason.
The reason why in Arab countries most people watch Al Jazeera is the substantial
limitations on freedom of speech, reflected in the various information broadcasts
of the many national Arab channels. In Italy instead," he adds, "the information
sources accessible to Italian speakers are numerous and diverse, and are generally
considered to provide sufficient knowledge of events. In brief, the TV news is
enough, without counting all other available information from daily newspapers
or television programs."
According to Adli, who
has lived in Italy for many years, with a little spare time and a satellite antenna
one can tune in to one's national channels, and people do so mainly to watch entertainment
programs. Exceptions are situations such as 9-11 or a heightening of the Middle
East crisis. "In this case Al Jazeera is watched, but," says Adli, "in a way not
so different from an Italian watching CNN for the length of time necessary for
his national TV to get the same recent pictures." This is precisely what happened
on 11th September 2001.
"Lacking a detailed analysis
of the phenomenon," says Adli, "it is mainly a matter of impressions. Feelings
for which, however, I found proof, at different levels: speaking with the Moroccan
laborer, the Lebanese engineer, or the Egyptian retailer." According to Adli,
a TV station like Al Jazeera becomes a complementary phenomenon, adding but not
substituting for Italian information or the local programs of the national Arab
televisions. At the most, Al Jazeera becomes a chance to deepen or compare. Then
Adli makes a distinction regarding access to the satellite and the user's educational
level. "It is clear that in situations of social discomfort, in the presence of
a medium to low level of education, or the impossibility to access a satellite,
the problem doesn't present itself."
Some experts on the situation
of Arab immigration in Italy believe that the Al Jazeera phenomenon has changed
not only the way television is perceived, but even the way the audience watches.
According to Gabriele
Mattioli, founder of the Italian-Arab Friends Association Assadaqah, the importance
of Al Jazeera has dramatically grown in Italy since approximately one year ago,
when, with its presence on the ground, it was able to follow the Afghan War. "I
hear," says Mattioli, "that groups have been formed in the houses of friends having
satellite antenna. And this is becoming a habit, even though it is only a year
since Al Jazeera's news broadcasts started covering Afghanistan." But this special
event has given rise to a real habit because, adds Mattioli, from one 'extraordinary'
event others follow, and the majority of them are of concern to Arabs abroad.
"I am thinking of Palestine or the winds of war in Iraq," says Mattioli. "Naturally
we are talking about that segment of the population that has a certain level of
education and culture, the same that usually own a television and, above all,
a 'dish.' If for example Al Jazeera could be viewed in a public place," concludes
Mattioli, "it would not necessarily be watched with the same frequency by a labourer
or someone employed in catering, who probably prefers to relax after work with
a football match, no more nor less than an Italian. It is certain that Al Jazeera
has changed the habits of the Arab television audience even though it remains
confined to a relatively limited environment."
Zuhair Louassini, a Moroccan
on RAIMED's editorial staff, shares this opinion. In his opinion, television offers
an appeal to an identity which is not vaguely pan-Arab but specifically national,
an identity which expresses itself through its attachment to entertainment, and
especially to Arabic soap operas and sport, football (soccer) above all. What
needs to be heard, says Louassini, is the original national idiom. During normal
and not exceptional times (such as 9-11 and peaks of the Israeli-Arab crisis),
one needs to hear what is happening in one's own town or village. Of course some
distinctions may be made: for example, offerings by the Moroccan second channel,
2M, are considered more modern and "nimble," and for this reason, according to
Zuhair Louassini, are preferred by Moroccans in Italy.
Della Ratta says, "The
more attractive offerings for the Arab communities abroad are those instigating
an identity bond, a link with the mother country. The best example, in my opinion,
is the Egyptian musalsal (soap opera), thus entertainment, an essential element
in relation to the national identity of the communities of each Arab country.
Also, entertainment is the real genre specific to Arab, and especially Egyptian
television; the latter, as you know, is the queen of Arab mass communications.
Even in the oldest and best integrated expatriate communities, such as the Arab
communities of France or Great Britain, the tendency to tune in to old Arab movies
or entertainment and fiction channels has been noticed. The first thing one looks
for when switching on national TV is a bond with one's origins, one's roots, with
something local. This contradicts the existence of a vague pan-Arab community,
a global gathering following in many ways the religious Islamic ummah, the image
around which the Saudis have built their large satellite networks (MBC, Orbit,
ART) in Europe. It follows that the local should win out over the global."
Yet, according to Della
Ratta, this is only partly true. The real difference is made by the content. To
put it simply, there is a "before" and an "after" Al Jazeera with regard to the
Arab audience in the diaspora and the choice of news programs. Before, the choice
of entertainment and sport over news was made mainly because of the way the news
was made and presented.
"The news content," explains
Della Ratta, "still followed too much and too monotonously the pro-governmental
Arab national palimpsest, meaning that the news did not tell what was happening
but the official version of the event. This obliged Arabs in the diaspora to get
information from western networks such as BBC and CNN and entertainment from their
own channels, creating a personal mixture of global and local daily TV provision."
Then Al Jazeera arrived,
taking the form from the western news-making model, to re-interpret it and elaborate
it in a pan-Arab version. With this, everything changed.
"All the Arab immigrants
that I happened to meet, from France to Italy to Holland," say Della Ratta, "watch
Al Jazeera and acknowledge it as the 'Arab' information channel. Apart from the
national differences between a Moroccan, a Saudi, or a Syrian, they recognise
themselves in the version of the news given by Al Jazeera. I therefore believe
that Al Jazeera is a pan-Arab information channel, in the true meaning of the
word, and the success it has achieved among Arabs abroad and in their homelands
shows that a regional feeling exists despite the considerable national differences,
that, in order to unfold, must find the right contents. Al Jazeera found them
and has been able to talk about something of interest to all Arabs in and outside
the region, irrespective of their differences.
Students of other situations,
such as North America, confirm the importance of Al Jazeera on the changes in
television habits of the Arab diaspora audience. Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar,
authors of Al Jazeera, How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed
the Middle East (Westview Press, Cambridge MA 2002), describe a situation identical
to the Italian, even though Arab immigrants to the United States and Canada differ
in their social origins, migratory and working trajectories, and integration from
those of Moroccans or Egyptians in Italy. The authors write:
|"The tension experienced
by Arab audiences, Al Jazeera's advocates, and critics are part of the Arab people's
experience of globalisation, migration, and emigration. Al Jazeera is a major
stakeholder in such processes. (…) The connections that bind the 300 million Arabs
in 22 countries are often abstract. It's not a military alliance, a political
truce, an economic cooperative, or a simple linguistic tie. It may not even be
reduced to a common religion. Instead, what brings Arabs together is a notion
of joint destiny." (pp.19-20)
El Nawawy and Iskandar
[see in this issue The Minotaur of 'Contextual Objectivity']
touch on a feature common to all expatriate communities, not only Arabs, that
bond with the national and linguistic identity of the country of origin. This
is the tendency to reinforce bonds among the like (in this case expatriates and
their compatriots in their own country) and to create barriers among the unlike
(in this case, expatriates and hosts). Pan-Arab channels such as Al Jazeera may
not only help to create a pan-Arab audience but also reduce the chances an immigrant
in Italy has to integrate more fully. Thus the opportunity for an immigrant to
increase his mastery of the host language may be reduced by the availability of
such channels and the immigrant's consequent neglect of local channels. Acquisition
of this ability through such a channel could go further than mere language knowledge
and extend to sharing the daily culture of a population, albeit filtered through
television. Without a satellite antenna, the Arab immigrants would have been able
to see Italian entertainment instead of Arab soap operas, not in order to become
Italian, but to know Italy better. TBS
Paola Caridi and Emanuele
Giordana are Italian journalists and cofounders of Lettera 22, an association
of free-lance journalists specializing in foreign issues. They publish in the
leading Italian weekly reviews and dailies and work with radio and television.
Caridi, who specializes in Middle Eastern and African issues, lives in Cairo.
Giordana, who is a scholar of Indonesian and Southeast Asian affairs, lives in